Taking the Speed Out of High Speed Rail

Some studies say that sticking with faster (rather than the fastest) rail would allow the Northwest to transport more riders for half the cost.
by | October 2011
 

Civic leaders still call their town the “Hub City,” a holdover from its role a century ago as a rail center for the movement of goods and people in all directions. A dozen passenger trains a day -- half northbound, half southbound -- still rumble through this western city of 16,000 that sits equidistant between Portland and Seattle.

They are run by the Washington state government-subsidized Amtrak Cascades passenger service, which has taken a deliberately incremental approach to developing the Cascadia corridor running from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.

Passenger rail service has been central to the corridor’s strategy and is reflected in a 15-year track record of increasing ridership (up 10 percent in the last year alone) and fares that cover nearly two-thirds of operating expenses. The strategy has marshaled local investment in infrastructure and forged partnerships with those who have an interest in the shared rail bed, including cities and towns along the corridor, Amtrak, the freight carrier Burlington Northern Santa Fe, federal funding agencies and regulators.

In the Northwest, passenger rail has purposely taken some of the speed out of high speed. Instead, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) measures its rail initiatives based on a three-part definition of convenience: reducing total trip time while boosting system efficiency and average speed. Scott Witt, former director of WSDOT’s State Rail and Marine Office, says a number of studies all indicate that sticking with faster (rather than fastest) rail would allow the region to realize 90 percent of the ridership and revenue targets at 50 percent of the cost of true high-speed rail, which can peak at 150 mph on Amtrak’s Acela service in the Northeast.

The lion’s share of the $781 million in federal passenger rail funding awarded to Washington is dedicated to raising the average speed by eliminating slow parts of the corridor with new bypasses and other upgrades.

This incremental approach to higher-speed rail has not isolated the service from the complexities of establishing a governance structure for the multistate, binational effort in which five governments must act in concert with one another. As part of that mix, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is transitioning from being a regulatory and safety organization to one responsible for project delivery, funding and management. Witt, whose career has been in project delivery, notes, “The FRA just has not seen this level of funding and complexity before.”

Still, he remains confident that the state will get there. “Our long-range vision is still to establish a dedicated high-speed track with trains running at up to 150 miles per hour,” says Witt, “but we’re laying the foundation to get there step-by-step.”

Back in the Hub City, Flossie Heymann, who owns and runs Heymann Whinery with her husband, notes that visitors who come by car may stumble upon Centralia’s downtown after shopping at the area outlets, but tourists who come by train arrive on purpose. “They come as couples or in small groups. They know we’re here and come for a day trip of antiquing and exploring our historic downtown.”

For Heymann and other local businesses, trains are an integral part of the downtown, bringing in city people from Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, as well as those who don’t have cars. As she pours some wine for the next tasting at her shop across the street from the station, Heymann coyly adds, “There’s nothing like a little wine while you are waiting for a train.”

Update, Oct. 4: This article has been updated to reflect Scott Witt's departure from WSDOT, which happened after this column went to press.

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